Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?

Posted on May 28, 2016

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There’s an old saying which you’ve all heard. “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23)

The meaning is obvious. Changing the color of an Ethiopian is no more possible than a leopard shedding its spots. That would be contrary to nature. We are born with a certain skin color just as a leopard and his cousins like tigers and lions and even your household kitty cat are born with a certain natural designs, usually to camouflage them from predators or from some other God-given reason.

So when I hear of people who have altered or changed their message, or their demeanor, or their delivery, or their anything under-the-sun that radically alters their nature or character, I weigh and measure these changes carefully. They may be totally self-serving to suit their interests, or conversely, truly changed by the intervention of God in their lives.

In another part of my life, I visit the local jail on a weekly basis to share the message of Jesus Christ.

I have met some men who know they are guilty, have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and their lives are truly changed, undergoing the Christian born-again transformation.

Others see their condition as a function of outside circumstances beyond their control, growing up poor, underprivileged, bad role models, racism, and easy access to drugs and alcohol. Only occasionally will some admit to bad choices on their part.

Some are hard core and have nothing to do with the Christian “ministers” of the jail ministry. They close their doors and their minds and turn their backs to us, both literally and figuratively. They are not going to change, to shed their spots or change their skin color. And they will return.

The recidivism rate in jails and prisons is close to eighty percent. That means on the average, eighty percent of those jailed or imprisoned will return a second and sundry times.

They simply cannot escape their fate—their spots or their color–and so think they are bound to be who they are. It is both sad and frustrating because quite a few recognize their circumstances and want to escape their lives and reinvent themselves as “normal” people.

Which brings us back to the leopard and the Ethiopian. While the one can’t change his spots and the other his color, the saying comes from the pen of an Old Testament prophet.

Jesus had not yet walked the earth, as told in the New Testament, with his gift of grace and salvation. He told his disciples and listeners that they must be “born again,” to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. How could this be some thought rationally? I cannot return to my mother’s womb.

Jesus instructed them that this was a matter of the spirit, not the flesh. The work of the Holy Spirit is involved and we cannot tarry to explain it all.

The bottom line is that you can change and radically move away from the direction you were heading in to an entirely new one. It is a matter of God working within you, although it is important that you take the first few steps towards him.

This is the message of hope that we bring to the inmates. There is even an edition of the Bible, “Free on the Inside,” which is popular with prisoners, especially the long timers in the correctional facilities, which is the euphemism used these days for “prison.”

Prison sounds too stern, and I like “correctional” facilities myself. It is about ultimately changing the spots on the leopards. It is rehabilitation and restoration.

If we can spend $800 million on new prisons to implement the philosophy of “lock them up and throw the key away,” surely we can allocate a small percentage of almost a billion dollars to rehabilitate and restore ex-offenders to a productive life in their communities. It can be done. It has been done in other communities.

The savings in what it costs to keep them locked up would be immense. The safety and security of our community would be significantly improved once we got the guns and gunners off the streets. And we would be restoring dignity and value to lives that matter.

Not all can be saved. Some are incorrigible without bowing to the word and promise of God. But we need to put into place the reentry and rehabilitation structures to make restoration possible for those who want to change their lives.

Published Sunday May 22, 2016 in The Tuscaloosa News as “Is Changing a Leopard’s Spots Really Possible?a

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